Over the course of the last three years in particular, every moment in which you started to think Taylor Swift couldn’t get any bigger than she already was, the magnitude of her celebrity expanded three times its size. In 2023, that expansion ballooned even larger in the face of albums both old and new and an international stadium tour that completely flattened Ticketmaster’s infrastructure. It placed her on top of the world, and as she is named Time‘s Person of the Year, Swift reflects in a rare interview on all of the moments in the past that almost stopped her from getting there.
“It’s not lost on me that the two great catalysts for this happening were two horrendous things that happened to me,” Swift told Time. “The first was getting canceled within an inch of my life and sanity. The second was having my life’s work taken away from me by someone who hates me.”
She’s referring to her 2016 spar with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian that served in many ways as a precursor to the Reputation era. It was a moment of reclaiming her narrative with higher stakes than she had ever gambled with before. Swift has always been calculated in her artistry — a descriptor that she now sees as a compliment rather than a signal of inauthenticity. But she couldn’t use easter eggs or intricately crafted lyrical structures to ground herself in this storm.
“You have a fully manufactured frame job, in an illegally recorded phone call, which Kim Kardashian edited and then put out to say to everyone that I was a liar,” Swift said, referring to the audio used to prove that she did in fact know about West’s lyrics referring to her on the Life of Pablo track “Famous.” She described that period of time — which took place around 2016 but had roots in her infamous run-in with West at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards — as a “career death,” adding: “Make no mistake—my career was taken away from me.”
“That took me down psychologically to a place I’ve never been before. I moved to a foreign country. I didn’t leave a rental house for a year. I was afraid to get on phone calls. I pushed away most people in my life because I didn’t trust anyone anymore. I went down really, really hard,” the singer continued. It was also a time when Swift was put under a microscope for her political opinions, or lack thereof, surrounding the 2016 election. Her reflection on that came later, in the Netflix documentary Miss Americana. Politics is maybe the last remaining point of contention around her career, but even that gets buried beneath the magnitude of her celebrity.
“I thought that moment of backlash was going to define me negatively for the rest of my life,” she said of the rocky period. And the narrative spun by West and Kardashian that painted Swift as a snake would later create great skepticism around another pivotal moment in her career — one that centered on the treasure she holds closest to her heart: the music.
In 2019, Scott Borchetta sold Big Machine Records, to which Swift had been signed since she was a teenager. In the sale, the singer’s master recordings fell into the hands of Scooter Braun. “With the Scooter thing, my masters were being sold to someone who actively wanted them for nefarious reasons, in my opinion,” she explained. “I was so knocked on my ass by the sale of my music, and to whom it was sold. I was like, ‘Oh, they got me beat now. This is it. I don’t know what to do.’”
To some sectors of the public, it was unclear how much Swift was really in the dark about the sales of these recordings, but behind the scenes she was just searching for a way to get them back. “The molecular chemistry of that old label was that every creative choice I wanted to make was second-guessed,” she said of the six records she released on the label. “I was really overthinking these albums.”
Feeling backed into a corner once again, she landed on the idea of re-recording those studio records to regain the control she had lost and largely devalue the original recordings. The (Taylor’s Version) recordings of Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, and soon Reputation turned what was already a musical goldmine into a diamond jackpot. She might have been unfamiliar with how to navigate the court of public spectacle, but she knew how to play the music game all too well.
After the 2009 VMAs, she remembered, “I realized every record label was actively working to try to replace me. I thought instead, I’d replace myself first with a new me. It’s harder to hit a moving target.” She hasn’t stopped moving since, really, apart from that stint away from the public eye to recover from what she described at the time as a “character assassination.” Now, she has no interest in disappearing just because someone has tried to chase her away.
“Life is short. Have adventures. I locking myself away in my house for a lot of years—I’ll never get that time back. I’m more trusting now than I was six years ago,” Swift shared. And as for the people who stood in the way of her getting to this moment, she isn’t too concerned about that, either. “I’ve also learned there’s no point in actively trying to quote unquote defeat your enemies,” she says, echoing the ethos of “Long Story Short,” from 2020’s Evermore. “Trash takes itself out every single time.”
Now with the past firmly where it belongs, Swift has used her pain to fuel her success with the massive Eras tour and subsequent concert film she released earlier this summer. She’s learned how to shut out any distractions and keep her eye on the prize. Her fans “had to work really hard to get the tickets,” she said. “I wanted to play a show that was longer than they ever thought it would be, because that makes me feel good leaving the stadium.”
In order to do so, Swift said she began physically training for the show six months before it started. “Every day I would run on the treadmill, singing the entire set list out loud,” she said. “Fast for fast songs, and a jog or a fast walk for slow songs. Then I had three months of dance training, because I wanted to get it in my bones,” she added. “I wanted to be so over-rehearsed that I could be silly with the fans, and not lose my train of thought.”
At the end of the day, Swift said it all goes back to one thing: keeping her fans happy. “I know I’m going on that stage whether I’m sick, injured, heartbroken, uncomfortable, or stressed,” she said. “That’s part of my identity as a human being now. If someone buys a ticket to my show, I’m going to play it unless we have some sort of force majeure.”